Last year, unsuccessful legislation banning look-alike guns near schools prompted months of Freedom of Information litigation against a lawmaker by a gun rights advocacy group. On Thursday, the Children’s Committee approved the concept again, this time amidst a renewed debate on gun control.
Rep. Diana Urban has proposed legislation for the last two years that would prohibit facsimile weapons — model guns that can be rendered virtually indistinguishable from real firearms — within a certain proximity of schools. This year’s bill passed the Children’s Committee on a 9-2 vote.
The bill was motivated by a 2011 incident during which a police officer encountered a 15-year-old boy on school property in Stonington. The boy was pointing a fake weapon at the head of another boy.
Stonington Police Chief Darren Stewart, who spoke at a press conference last year, said there was a brief standoff between the cop and the boy. The officer drew his weapon and the boy eventually dropped the facsimile gun. But the situation could have ended differently.
“The officer was placed in an awful, awful position at that time about the use of deadly physical force,” Stewart said.
The fake guns typically come with bright red indicators, signalling they aren’t real weapons. The bill would also make it a crime to remove or deface these indicators.
While last year’s bill passed unanimously out of the Children Committee, it was opposed by Connecticut Carry, a 2nd Amendment advocacy group based in North Branford. Richard Burgess, the group’s president, entered testimony opposing it during a public hearing.
Burgess called the legislation a “massively overreaching” solution to a “nonexistent” problem.
“There is no current epidemic of air guns and ‘look-a-like’ firearms being brought into or around our schools,” he said.
Last year’s legislation was originally written to prohibit the fake guns within 1,500 feet of an elementary or secondary schools. Burgess said such zones would occupy a majority of some cities and make criminals out of people who didn’t realize they had crossed into a school zone. The bill was eventually modified to only prohibit the fake guns on school property, although it still made it illegal to remove the red indicators.
Last year’s legislation was referred to the Public Safety Committee. According to Connecticut Carry’s website, Burgess emailed the members of the committee urging them to put a stop to the legislation.
The bill never made it out the committee. On Thursday, Public Safety Committee Chairman Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, speculated that last year’s failure was attributable to the short legislative session.
Last March, a day before the committee’s deadline to take final action on the legislation, Connecticut Carry sent one of many Freedom of Information requests to Urban’s office, asking for any correspondence between Urban, the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, the Stonington Police Department, and Stonington High School regarding the bill.
According to records at the state’s Freedom of Information Commission, Urban forwarded the requests to the House Democrats’ legal counsel, Christy Scott, who reviewed about a dozen records turned over by Urban’s aide. Scott determined none were pertinent to the FOI request.
In early April, Scott informed Connecticut Carry there were no applicable records and suggested discussions about the bill may have happened over the phone or through personal conversations, which would leave no records to be obtained under the FOI Act.
In a letter filed April 24, Connecticut Carry appealed to the FOI Commission, saying that Urban had failed to provide them with applicable records and asking that she be subject to civil penalties.
The case went to a hearing in November, where Burgess submitted a Jan. 20 letter from Stewart, the Stonington police chief, to Urban asking her to consider legislation on look-alike guns. Burgess had obtained the letter through a records request to the police department.
After the hearing, Urban and her aide looked for the letter but couldn’t find a copy of it. Unlike executive branch employees, lawmakers aren’t required to keep records on file so that they may be requested.
“We’re not required under the law to keep anything,” Urban said Thursday. “So I had deleted the letter from my police chief. I don’t know if it was under a file or who knows where, because to me the issue was over.”
But the issue wasn’t over until January of this year, when the FOI Commission concluded Urban had turned over all the records she had maintained.
It’s unclear what Connecticut Carry hoped to discover through its FOI requests. Burgess did not immediately return calls for comment Thursday. However, the group’s website suggests Urban’s legislation was part of a conspiracy, drafted to cover for the police officer who drew his weapon on a minor.
“So what do you do as the authorities in the town? Redact the police report, make up lies and get a state representative to craft a bill that you think will make you look like a hero,” the website said.
Urban shook her head at the mention of conspiracy. She said she believes the 2nd Amendment group had other motivations in pursuing months of litigation against her.
“I think it was straight up intimidation. I think they were trying to intimidate me from running a bill like that. As a mom, you’re not going to intimidate me,” she said. “I assume it’s the ‘camel’s nose under the tent.’ How dare I even say anything about this? Even when my underlying motivation is to protect children.”
Urban, who said she was raised around firearms, said her other motivation was to protect police officers from having to live with inadvertently shooting a child carrying a realistic but fake weapon.
This year’s legislation came up for a public hearing in February. Robert Crook, director of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, opposed it but only because he said some sections conflicted with current statute. Connecticut Carry did not enter testimony.
But legislation concerning fake firearms is not likely to be a priority for 2nd Amendment advocates this year. Close to 100 bills concerning guns have been proposed in the months since December 14, when a gunman entered a Newtown elementary school and murdered 20 children and six educators.
Urban said she expects her bill to pass this session as lawmakers look to protect children from gun violence.
“I would think given the atmosphere we have that this would be a shoo-in. I can’t see anyone being against this. It’s a look-alike,” she said.